Helping At-Risk Youth by Emphasizing Career Literacy

By Laura Richards-Farwell

Poverty and education are often linked, because frequently students living in poverty stop going to school so they can work, which leaves them without the skills they need to further their education and improve their future careers opportunities (Childfund International, 2019). This could become a cycle within a family, as children leave school to help provide for the family, just as their parents did. Coming from economically limited communities, many times, parents are absent from discussing career options with their child because they work long hours to provide for their families.

Over the past ten years, many states have begun to utilize Schools of Choice programs. These programs provide at-risk students with additional enrollment opportunities, which range from allowing students to determine which school within the resident district they will enroll, to allowing non-resident students to enroll in a district other than their own (Ciloski, 2013). Expanding educational opportunities to students from economically struggling cities has given thousands of students, particularly at-risk students, a chance to continue their education in other districts that provide more diverse educational offerings. These enhanced offerings hopefully have a positive impact on career literacy.

Students, along with their families, often rely on the schools to provide career readiness support. Although career exploration continues to be a topic of discussion in most K-12 schools, it often falls to the bottom of the priority list due the limited time and resources available to teachers, counselors, and staff. However, when counselors and schools fail to meet the post-secondary career planning needs, at-risk students are often more affected, as they do not have the outside resources to assist them in navigating their future.

Education communities realize the importance of focusing not only on high school graduation requirements for at-risk students but also of offering other career planning assistance to help develop employability skills, create goals, engage in career exploration activities, and expand post-secondary options. Given the identified need, every school in the United States must develop a plan to not only assist in helping at-risk students graduate from high school but to also provide career navigation and career readiness options throughout students’ high school career. For at-risk students in particular, the following ideas are valuable strategy considerations when working toward post-secondary career readiness.

Promote Career Literacy
Career and vocational guidance can no longer be perceived as a discrete service offered to young people after high school education (Galvan & Negete, 2017). Early career exploration is an especially essential intervention for students who might otherwise be at risk for leaving high school. Research has identified the middle school as a time when students can benefit the most from career exploration, a process of building self-awareness, learning about potential careers, and developing a plan for reaching future goals (McAvoy, 2018).

Explore Self-Awareness
Many at-risk students have talents that are not always recognized and fostered early. Parents may be absent or do not have time to acknowledge or nurture these talents. Schools should utilize and provide meaningful career exploration activities that assist students in finding their strengths and areas of interest. Using career exploration tools and assessments to assist students in discovering and engaging in conversations about their future is a critical step to help at-risk students become self-aware (DeAngelis, 2019).

Help Students to Increase Employability Skills
At-risk youth are often deficient in not only academic and job skills, but critical interpersonal skills as well. A growing body of evidence recognizes the importance of soft skills in predicting long-term life outcomes, including labor market outcomes as well as social and health behaviors (Gates, Lippman, Shadowen, Burke, Diener, & Malkin, 2016). These soft skills can include critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. In a globally collective culture where innovation is the norm, these process skills are just as relevant, if not more important, than the end product (Fauche, 2018).

Apprenticeship/Internship Programs
College may not be the best option for all students. At-risk students can benefit from exposure to all options, including trade schools and military programs. One way to do this is to provide students with real-world experience through an internship or apprenticeship program that directly target at-risk students (Long, 2018). There are many examples of apprenticeship programs for at-risk youth from around the United States, including the True Star Foundation program, which provides at-risk students with meaningful employment opportunities to develop 21st-century job skills, communication skills, and enhance their professional development. The program has taken an innovative approach to improving the lives of youth with on-the-job training programs enabling students to create, produce, and work in the media industry in particular.


Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Counselors are vital to promoting career literacy with at-risk students. By taking advantage of available school choice programs, engaging early in career exploration activities, developing soft skills and work skills, and obtaining opportunities in real-world experiences via internships and apprenticeships, at-risk students can be better prepared for the future. Intentionally assisting at-risk students to find and foster their strengths can help them on their journey to break the current cycle of poverty.



Childfund International. (2019). The effects of poverty on education. Retrieved from https://www.childfund.org/poverty-and-education/

Ciloski, B. (2013). Schools of choice newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,4615,7-140-81351_81352_81356---,00.html

DeAngelis, T. (2019, February). Helping at-risk students succeed. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/02/at-risk-students

Fauche, J. (2018, December). 5 ways to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. Retrieved from https://www.parenttoolkit.com

Galvan, A., & Negete, A. (2017). Responding to student’ career development needs by promoting career literacy. Retrieved from https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/143755/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false

Gates, S., Lippman, L., Shadowen, N., Burke, H., Diener, O., & Malkin, M. (2016). Key soft skills for cross-sectoral youth outcomes. Washington, DC: USAID’s YouthPower: Implementation, YouthPower Action.

Long, K. (2018, October). Washington voters don’t think schools prepare kids for careers. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/washington-voters-dont-think-schools-prepare-kids-for-careers-the-state-is-trying-to-change-that/

McAvoy, D. (2018). Career exploration in middle school: Setting students on the path to success. Retrieved from https://www.acteonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ACTE_CC_Paper_FINAL.pdf



Laura FarwellLaura Farwell, Ed.S is currently a Career Navigator at Oxford Community Schools in Michigan. She has over 25 years of experience in the education, training and social work fields including both community and school settings. Her passion for at-risk populations has been a constant in her career. She can be reached at laura.farwell@oxfordschools.org


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Linda Sollars   on Tuesday 10/01/2019 at 09:03 PM

This is such an insightful article with a deep understanding and care for the at-risk population in K-12, Laura. Thank you for sharing your incredible insight!

Dave McCall   on Wednesday 10/02/2019 at 09:02 AM

Great article Laura. You hit on so many exceptional truths about the importance of the career exploration/development and the importance of developing soft skills in our students. These are both things that I am passionate about. Again, great job.

Susan Helton   on Wednesday 10/09/2019 at 10:57 AM

Thank you for such a well-written article hitting on really important points. Your article re-affirms my mission, as I work in an alternative school and all of our students are at-risk.

Amy Saunders   on Sunday 01/16/2022 at 07:36 PM

Phew! I felt so relieved when you mentioned that exposing youngsters to career literacy could encourage them to learn about skills that best suit their dream jobs. One of the kids in my neighborhood has been wanting to be an engineer to help her poor family. I'll ask her to refer to a guidance officer so she can make a proper planning soon. https://www.joyfuljourneys.org/event

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.